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tv   2020  ABC  December 9, 2016 10:01pm-11:01pm PST

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we're talking about a life and death struggle here. a death match. >> tonight, a "20/20" investigation. the amazing story that could be the next making a girl found on a riverbank. now, the man found fishing nearby, sentenced to life for killing her, a man many think is
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innocent. and what you see tonight could set him free. could the evidence put him away, or was it a detective honing in on an easy target? tonight, one woman's crusade to prove his innocence. >> people lost track of who was doing what. >> lost track in a high-profile murder case? we're showing you the crime scene. there's no way you could lean out and see anything that was going on. tapes the jury never saw. even the judge rethinking the case. did they catch a murderer, or make one? >> if he didn't kill her, then who did? >> hello. i'm elizabeth vargas.
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>> and i'm david muir. a man in prison six years into a life sentence for killing a young woman. but questions are now being raised. is an innocent man behind bars? >> just yesterday, his lawyer filed to have the conviction overturned. i've now spent hours with a man who refused a plea deal. after tonight, will you think he did it? >> reporter: drive west from charlotte, north carolina, on interstate 85 and you'll cross the catawba river. wide and placid, it's a big draw for recreational boaters and sportsmen. in close but separate locations on the river's wooded banks, two people arrive here on the morning of may 5th, 2008. they could not be more different.
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one is a 20-year-old student from nearby unc charlotte. ira yarmolenko, a musician, a photographer, a poet. >> as women, as children. >> reporter: an outdoorsy type who literally loves nature. >> she really enjoyed the beauty of nature. and she tried to find it everywhere. >> reporter: pavel is ira's brother. why do you think your sister drove to the river that day? >> i think that she was looking for a pretty spot to take pictures at. >> reporter: ira is originally from the ukraine, immigrating here with her family when she was just 7 years old. the other person on the river that day, 39-year-old mark carver, is from just down the road in nearby gastonia, a dirt road which bears his family name, lined with modest dwellings which house his relatives. >> carver was a very simple person. his family lived out in the country. didn't have much education,
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could not read very well, cannot write very well. >> reporter: unlike ira, mark has never been to college. in fact, he's never gone to high school. after years of working in the local cotton mills, he now spends his day here at this fishing hole on the catawba where he casts away his troubles, often with this man, his cousin neal cassada. robin carv is mark's sister-in-law. >> oh, they were together all the time when they were fishing and stuff. >> reporter: what happened on that river that bright may day is as perplexing as it was violent. but this much we can tell you for sure. today, ira yarmolenko is in a north carolina cemetery and mark carver is in this north carolina prison, serving a life sentence for her murder. i recently wt behind the barbed wire and concrete walls to hear his story. hi, mark. i'm elizabeth. >> hi, okay. >> reporter: nice to meet you. >> you, too. >> reporter: why don't you have
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a seat? >> okay. >> reporter: how long have you been in this prison? >> five years. >> reporter: there's no question that what happened to ira that day was terrible and tragic. but attorney chris mumma, who's devoted her career to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, says carver is also a victim. >> we think mark is innocent. and if mark is innocent, the family has not received justice, and the true perpetrator is still out on the streets. >> reporter: mumma took me out on the river to the spot where carver and cassada were fishing that morning. mark would back his truck down this road? >> down here. >> reporter: so he didn't walk the road, he drove down. and literally parked with the back of the truck right here. >> he would sit on the back, the tailgate and fish. >> reporter: cassada left around 12:30 that afternoon, leaving carver alone. half an hour later, two jet skiers out for a ride on the catawba come upon a gruesome scene. >> gaston county 911. >> i'm a boater on the catawba
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river above the i-85 bridge. >> something blue and metallic catches the eye of one of the jet skiers. >> there's a car that's run off an embankment. and there's a body laying there. i don't know if they're alive or not. >> and as they motor up closer, they see the body of a young girl lying in the grass beside the car. it is ira yarmolenko, her body, her car, found 100 yards upriver from carver's fishing hole. the police found ira's body right beside the driver's side of the car. >> reporter: elizabeth leland has written extensively about the case for "the charlotte observer." she says the bizarre crime scene posed far more questions than answers. >> she wasn't raped. she wasn't robbed. there were lots of things that just didn't make sense about this case. >> reporter: among them, the odd manner of death. these three ligatures around her neck. >> there was the drawstring had been taken out of her hoodie and wrapped around tight and knotted in several places. there was a bungee cord that had
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been tied around. and lastly, a very dainty little blue ribbon. >> disturbing discovery on the catawba river, a body. >> reporter: as the media descends, police begin canvassing the area for witnesses. they talk to those two jet skiers, and to construction workers who were in the area where ira's body was found. >> we went to see if anything could be done but it was too late. there was no movement. >> reporter: and of course they find that fisherman, calmly casting for carp just downstream, mark carver. and what did they tell you was happening? >> they didn't tell me nothing. they just said that they needed to get my name and address. and my fishing license. i give them to them. and then he give them back. i shook his hand, and they went up through there. >> reporter: carver is cooperative, but not very helpful. he says he neither saw nor heard anything. so police have nothing but bad news to deliver when they notify ira's family. >> a police officer came to the door. >> reporter: what did he say? >> he slowly walked in and, and
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told us that the, that unfortunately they have found my sister's body and they were very certain that it's her. >> reporter: i can't fathom getting news like that. >> i think all of us simply collapsed where we were, and that was, that was it. >> reporter: days pass with no arrest. the mystery now as deep as the sorrow. >> i hope that when you go home tonight you will tell everybody that you loved them. >> reporter: pavel eulogizes his sister at a memorial service on campus. in the coming days, she is laid to rest, while detectives speak to those who last saw her, piecing together her final steps. >> this video is to represent the timeline for miss irina yarmolenko. >> reporter: detectives record this timeline video. >> ira spent the morning running errands. she went to the credit union. then she went to the goodwill. >> reporter: a security camera catches her donating several bags of clothing. >> and then she went to
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jackson's java, which was a coffee shop where she worked. >> reporter: it takes approximately five minutes and 50 seconds to drive from jackson's java to goodwill. >> and from there to the catawba river is about a 19-minute drive. >> reporter: this is the last documented moment of ira's life. a grainy video of her car driving through the parking lot of a ymca, about half a mile from the embankment where her car was found. police study it, searching for any sign of another person in the car. but the video is inconclusive. police can't tell. so they pursue the theory ira met her killer out on the river. if someone approached her that she didn't know would she have had her defenses up? >> unfortunately for her, i think she was much more of an outgoing type of person. >> reporter: the kind of person who would trust people she didn't know? >> oh, i think so, yeah. >> reporter: with the search for the killer dragging on for weeks and then months, public pressure on the police to solve the crime mounts. >> we were tormented by the
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search. we thought of it more or less constantly. >> reporter: so police bring mark carver back in and start to do some fishing of their own. >> do you know what dna is? >> reporter: are they about to find a murderer, or make one? >> we were in shock. we couldn't believe what was happening. >> reporter: stay with us. look at the other line... mm...mhh... that's why he starts his day with those two scoops... in deliciously heart healthy kellogg's raisin bran. ready to eat my dust? too bad i already filled up on raisins. by taking steps towards a healthy heart, jay knows he'll be ready for the turns ahead. hey don't forget to put up your kickstand. ring (bell) sighs. kellogg's raisin bran. and try kellogg's raisin bran crunch now with more crunchy clusters.
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evidence. >> reporter: on the ground floor of the gaston county courthouse we find this cardboard box. inside, the evidence from the ira yarmolenko crime scene. the three ligatures that were wrapped around her neck, a small floral bag from which one of those ligatures, a blue ribbon, had been torn. look at how tight that knot is. photos of her car on the bank of the river. investigators spend six months working every possible lead and interviewing cooperative witnesses like mark carver repeatedly. >> did you see that little girl? >> no, i ain't never seen her in my life. i told them i didn't know what happened to the girl, or i would have went up there and helped her. >> reporter: carver and his cousin neal cassada both volunteer dna samples. meanwhile, ira's family works the media, keeping images of the
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smiling student, the carefree spirit that was ira, alive in the public's mind. >> we simply did the only thing we could do, contact local media and get information out there, so that possible witnesses would submit information. >> reporter: pavel, a brother who won't quit, at one point appeals directly to the killer. >> i have no doubt that once you truly realize how deeply you've hurt us all you'll have no choice but to surrender. >> reporter: it is not until seven months after the murder that investigators finally catch a break. they have a dna match. traces of mark carver's dna in one spot on the outside of the car, above the rear driver's side door. neal cassada's dna is in two spots, on the inside of the right passenger window and on an armrest. what kind of dna are we talking about? >> it's dna where skin cells have been shed, and typically it's called touch dna. >> reporter: it is not blood
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dna, or semen, but police think it's enough, even though the two cousins had no obvious motive for murder. >> the question that t dna never answered and the police never could was why these men would kill ira yarmolenko. >> reporter: groping for answers, the police come up with a theory that ira had somehow seen carver and cassada doing something so outrageous they had to kill her to keep their secret. >> their theory was that ira was down there to photograph and caught the men doing something that they didn't want anybody to know about. and so the men violently strangle her. and pushed the car down the embankment. and that's why their dna was found on it. >> reporter: so now mark carver finds mself on the hot seat. >> do you know what dna is? >> yeah. >> i found your dna inside her car. how can you explain that?
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>> no, you didn't find my dna. >> oh, yeah, i did. i found yours and neal's both. >> my dna ain't in that car. >> how much money do you want to bet? >> i bet you $1 million my dna ain't in that car. i didn't know that car was even up there. >> i ain't buying it. >> i can't help you. i didn't do it. >> you said you didn't see a car, you never heard a car, you never touched a car and lo and behold guess whose dna is inside a dead girl's car? yours. >> reporter: over and over again, you keep telling the police, "we didn't touch the car." >> i told them and told them. but they didn't believe nothing we told them. >> reporter: in fact, during that hour-long interrogation carver denies seeing ira or touching her car more than 50 times. >> i'm telling you the truth. >> reporter: when the interview finally wraps up -- >> i'll show you how to get out of here. >> reporter: police allow carver and his cousin neal cassada to go home, but neal's daughter amy says the writing was on the wall. >> he walked in and he was like they're trying to pin this on
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me. >> reporter: did he tell you what they said to him? >> well, they were saying that they knew he did it. he just needed to confess it. >> reporter: two days later, before sunrise, police show up to arrest the men. they haul them back in and give them one last chance to confess. this is neal cassada. >> y'all are barking the wrong tree. i swear on my mama's grave i didn't have a thing to do with that. >> reporter: no confession? no matter. the two men are charged with first degree murder, even though neal cassada had already passed a polygraph. the men appear stunned and confused at their arraignment the following day. >> everybody was just in shock. we just couldn't believe it was happening. >> we do not want to go to trial until we have all the evidence. >> reporter: the man leading the charge against carver and cassada is gaston county district attorney locke bell. but it is a slow charge, even
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after the men make bail, police continue to test and eliminate eight other suspects. two years pass before prosecutors bring the case to trial. then, on the eve of the opening arguments in neal cassada's case, a shocking development. >> it was sunday morning. the trial started on monday. he was in the kitchen and he told my mom, i'm having a little trouble breathing. and he just fell over. >> reporter: neal cassada never gets his day in court. >> neal cassada died in his home sunday morning. >> those two years, it was very hard on him. he was so worried. that he was going to prison for something he didn't do. >> reporter: even with one of the defendants dead, the state pushes forward with the prosecution of the other, mark carver, who at the time hires local defense attorney brent ratchford. before the trial, carver is offered the deal of a lifetime.
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plead guilty to second degree murder and spend just four to eight years in prison. ratchford thought that the deal was a strong statement about the state's weak case. >> i had never gotten such a low offer. he turned it down without batting an eye. >> i'm not going to plead guilty for something i didn't do. >> reporter: you'd rather spend the rest of your life in prison? >> yeah. >> reporter: in march 2011, carver's legal reckoning finally arrives. >> he's upbeat and feeling good. he's innocent, so we're ready for our day. >> reporter: at trial, prosecutors build their case on three key pieces of evidence. the first, carver's proximity to the crime scene. if he were less than 100 yards from where ira was killed, prosecutors argue his claim he heard nothing that day just can't be true. detectives testify about an experiment they conducted on the river. one detective stood where carver was fishing, another where ira was.
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according to testimony, they spoke in normal voices and could hear each other. >> we had a lot of issue with that but it was allowed to come in anyway. >> reporter: the second piece of evidence, at touch dna found on ira's car that matched mark carver. prosecutors say it proves he touched the car and therefore must have been at the crime scene. and to drive that point home, the state has an ace in the hole. a moment from that interrogation where carver, police testify, gave himself away. detective william terry was also in the room during that interrogation. >> he said that she came up to him about right here. >> the gotcha moment was when the police detective was recounting the interrogation and said that mark carver knew that ira was little. >> reporter: that moment is crucial. carver had always said he'd never seen ira.
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so prosecutors ask, how could he know how tall she was unless he was lying? >> the very first thing i thought was, they got you. >> reporter: judge timothy kincaid presided over carver's murder trial. that's what did it for you? >> that was a turning point of that trial for me. >> reporter: and with that, the prosecution rests its case. >> everyone was then sort of on the edge of their chairs, waiting for the defense to present a case. >> reporter: but to the shock of carver's family, ratchford decides the state's case is so weak, he will present no witnesses or evidence for the defense. >> they could not explain how the crime occurred. well, based on that, the jury's not going to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. >> they told us no way that they were going to be convicted. >> reporter: they're wrong. it takes the jury just a few hours to return with a verdict, guilty of first degree murder. >> when i heard that verdict come down i couldn't breathe. i was like, they got it wrong. >> reporter: judge kincaid sentences carver to life in prison. but while his cell door slams
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shut, another investigation is just beginning. so, let's send you over to where ira was. how much of the state's case really holds water? tell her to yell. stay with us. ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ the joy of creating, the joy of giving. pandora jewelry. hand-finished sterling silver. burning, pins-and-needles of beforediabetic nerve pain, these feet played shortstop in high school, learned the horn from my dad and played gigs from new york to miami.
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>> reporter: chris mumma gets people out of prison. her organization, the north carolina center on actual innocence, has had a hand in overturning 19 convictions. >> the point at which i really thought maybe there was something to this case was finding out that chris mumma was involved. >> and i thank you so much. >> reporter: mumma takes on only 2% of the clients who approach her. in 2013, she agreed to make mark carver's fight her own. you rarely take these. you picked mark's case. why? >> the bottom line is, is there a valid question mark, and is there a way to get the answer? mark's case met all the criteria for us. >> reporter: and if anyone ever needed a sharp legal mind in his
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corner, it is mark carver. mumma argues he was easily manipulate by police because of his limited education. is it hard for you to read and write? >> i can read a little bit, but i can't write -- i'm illiterate. >> reporter: one of the first problems mumma noticed in the case was that the "killers" were, she believes, physically incapable of killing. >> there's all kinds of things that don't fit together. it doesn't fit together that two men who are so limited in their physical ability could do this to a young, vibrant, strong girl. >> neal had a terrible heart condition. his family said he couldn't walk 20 feet without becoming winded. mark carver has carpal tunnel in his hands. he says he can't even hold a plate for long without dropping it. >> reporter: those years working in a cotton mill had left carver disabled. he showed us the scars on his arms from multiple surgeries. so how does that affect what you can do and what you can't do? >> i can't grab nothing, hold it for a long time.
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can you button your cuff back up? >> yeah, it'll just take me a minute. i'll get it in a minute. you just have to give me time. >> reporter: okay. could these hands throttle someone to death? and even if carver had killed ira for reasons unknown, why on earth would he stay at the scene? >> it doesn't make sense. who's going to kill someone and then go right back to fishing? >> reporter: mumma also points to this man, who asked us not to reveal his identity. he was on the catawba river that day and spoke to mark carver around 2:00 p.m. in that crucial period after ira was killed and before the police questioned mark carver. >> we talked about fishing and talked about his family. we had a good conversation for about 30, 35 minutes. >> reporter: but most importantly, this man says he didn't notice anything about carver that suggested he had just been through a homicidal struggle. >> mr. carver wasn't muddy, he wasn't wet. he had no scratches on him. he was just as normal as anybody could be normal, just sitting on
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the back of his suv fishing. >> reporter: mumma thinks this man's testimony could have been important at carver's trial. but he was never called to testify. instead, the jury heard from that detective, who described the sound experiment police conducted on the river trying to disprove carver's claim that he heard nothing. we recreated that experiment for ourselves. so let's send you over to where ira was. i'm going to stay here where mark was and we're going to have you talk. remember on the stand, the detective said he spoke in a normal voice and could still be heard from the fishing hole. >> can you hear me? >> i don't hear anything. >> can you hear me? >> has she said anything yet? >> elizabeth, can you hear me? >> tell her to yell. >> can you hear me? >> i can hear you! >> you cannot hear each other
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talking at a normal voice. you can't hear each other talking when you raise your voice several levels. and that's what i did with you. >> reporter: you shouted as loud as you could. of course, the jurors never saw an experiment like this. they just heard the detective's testimony about it. and this isn't the only time mumma thinks that detective's testimony may have misled the jury. >> he said she was, i believe the words he used was a little thing. >> reporter: remember that bombshell moment when he described how carver seemed to know ira's height even though he claimed never to have seen her? >> he said that she came up to him about right here. >> reporter: mumma says you need to look at the actual video, which was never played in court, and understand that police they were interrogating a man with an iq of 61 and had no idea what he was up against. >> if you look at the full, interrogation, the detective was asking mark to tell him about ira. >> reporter: in fact it is the detective interrogating mark who
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calls ira "little," and then encourages him to describe her even though he has already said over and over he's never seen her. >> she was a little thing, wasn't she? >> yeah. >> so she wasn't much taller than you? >> it is the detective who's telling mark, the detective stands up and says she would have come about here on you, right? and mark says, yeah, i guess, and he said, well, stand up and show me. and mark basically mimics what the detective did. >> probably about right there. >> reporter: was he being manipulated? >> i think it was manipulative to present that at trial without clarification. and i think it was error for the defense to not challenge that. >> reporter: again, jurors in
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the case never saw this video. they just heard the detective describe it. judge timothy kincaid, who presided over the case, also found the detectives' trial testimony persuasive but he'd never seen the tape either. this is the actual interrogation. what do you think after watching that? >> i think it was quite leading. >> reporter: the detective was using the language first, in other words. >> he was. >> reporter: do you think that mark carver is simple enough, that he would just echo whatever this man was saying? >> i can't answer that. i think it does put a new light on the whole thing. >> reporter: what kind of light? >> it does make me question whether or not mark carver did it. certainly i think that could have created reasonable doubt. >> reporter: but what about that final and most damning piece of evidence -- the touch dna that seemed to place carver at the
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crime scene? wh you hear the words dna match, that sounds like as close to a sure thing as you can get. mumma says not so fast. whatever you think you know about the infallibility of dna, think again. >> is there another explanation for how that dna got there? >> reporter: stay with us. [ bark ] cut! cut, cut, cut, cut... good job everybody, but i feel like we're missing something... something special. what about a star? [ door knocking ] somebody looking for a star? [ laughs ] [ gasps ] dude! this was just sitting out front! ♪ fothere's a seriousy boomers virus out there that's been almost forgotten. it's hepatitis c. one in 30 boomers has hep c, yet most don't even know it.
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c'mohappy birthday! i survived a heart attack. i'm doing all i can to keep from having another one. and i'm taking brilinta. for people who've been hospitalized for a heart attack. i take brilinta with a baby aspirin. no more than one hundred milligrams as it affects how well it works. brilinta helps keep my platelets from sticking together and forming a clot. brilinta reduced the chance of another heart attack. or dying from one. it worked better than plavix. >>don't stop taking brilinta without talking to your doctor since stopping it too soon increases your risk of clots in your stent, heart attack, stroke, and even death. brilinta may cause bruising or bleeding more easily, or serious, sometimes fatal bleeding. don't take brilinta if you have bleeding, like stomach ulcers, a history of bleeding in the brain, or severe liver problems. tell your doctor about bleeding, new or unexpected shortness of breath, any planned surgery, and all medicines you take. >>talk to your doctor about brilinta. i'm doing all i can. that includes brilinta.
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if you can't afford your medication, astra zeneca may be able to help. p is for privileges. o is for ordinarily i wouldn't. l is for layers of luxury. a is for alll the way back. r is for read my mind. and i... can't see a thing. s... see you in the morning. polaris, from united. now, "20/20" continues. once again, elizabeth vargas.
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911, what's the emergency? >> there's a body floating in the catawba river. >> reporter: in the hours after ira yarmolenko's body was found, local news crews recorded this footage of polocesice prng the scene. it looks like they're all over it. but attorney chris mumma says looks can be deceiving. >> it was actually two months later before the vehicle was swabbed. >> reporter: why did the police wait two months before swabbing that car for dna? >> it seems from the records that people just lost track of who was doing what. >> reporter: lost track in a high-profile murder case? >> i can't think of any reason why you wouldn't swab a vehicle immediately. >> reporter: getting dna from a bodily fluid like blood is nothing new. but in 2008, the ability to lift dna from an object that had been merely touched was cutting edge forensic science. it was that technology that gave detectives here the break they needed, those traces of mark carver's touch dna on ira's
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car. >> mark's dna was not found on anything else. it was not found on the steering wheel, the key, the ligatures around ms. yarmolenko's neck, her clothing, the gearshift, the seat, the front door. it was not found on any of these. and they were tested. >> reporter: what about under ira's fingernails? was there any dna there? >> there were two profiles. there was hers, which you would expect to find there, but there also was another profile that was unidentified. >> reporter: to this day, police have not been able to identify to whom that mystery dna belongs, or explain why so little of mark carver's or neal cassada's dna was found at the crime scene. wouldn't his dna have been all over ira? we're talking about a life and death struggle here, a death match. >> i would expect to see more of his dna on her body or on her clothing. >> reporter: dr. lawrence kobilinsky is a dna expert who
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has testified in nearly 50 trials. he says most of all he would expect to see carver's touch dna on those ligatures around ira's neck. >> you would expect sufficient numbers of cells to be left behind. the simplest explanation is that he did not touch those ligatures. >> reporter: and if it's possible that carver didn't touch the ligatures, is it also possible he didn't actually touch the car? >> most people think of dna only being able to be in a place if they specifically touch it, and they don't consider the fact that someone else may have had contact with them and then touched the car. >> there are two ways that dna can be deposited on an item of evidence. one way is a direct transfer. >> reporter: as in, i touched that item. >> as in i touched something and i leave behind dna from my hands. the second possibility is an indirect or secondary transfer, where i shake your hand, and now
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i touch a vehicle and i transfer your dna onto that vehicle. >> reporter: so how could carver's dna been transferred? remember, he spoke to police that day on the banks of the river. >> the officer who came over and took mark's driver's license, so he's holding an item that has mark's dna on it, and he shook mark's hand. >> reporter: and look again at the crime scene photos and video. mumma says it's clear some of the officers were not wearing gloves, even while they were touching the car. >> they're touching the inside of the car, they're touching the outside of the car. they're touching the, the doors, the handles, so it's contaminated. >> reporter: this officer even appears to lean on the car door. and something else is startling, while reviewing the video shot at the crime scene that day, we came across this footage. it appears to show an officer rubbing the exact area of ira yarmolenko's car where mark carver's touch dna was found.
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and as you can see, he's not wearing gloves. were any of the officers who were touching that car, did any of them have their dna tested? >> there's no record of any dna being taken from any officer who was at the scene. >> reporter: at carver's trial, secondary transfer of his touch dna was dismissed as highly unlikely, but it has happened before. in 2012, a millionaire from california was murdered in his home. forensic experts found dna on his fingernails that they were able to link to 26-year-old lukis anderson. there was only one problem. anderson had an airtight alibi. at the time of the murder, he was in the hospital being treated for severe intoxication. >> it turns out, the same two paramedics that scooped up anderson, who was living on the streets, were at the murder scene a short time later. >> reporter: once prosecutors realized anderson's dna had been transferred to the crime scene by paramedics, he was finally cleared.
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>> if you're not careful, you're going to end up putting somebody at a crime scene who was never there. >> reporter: so why didn't carver's original defense attorney call a dna expert to explain how that might have happened here? >> sometimes you're opening pandora's box. you think you're putting in a lot of good evidence, but it could turn around anbite you. then a dna expert is not going to help you. >> reporter: ratchford's decisions continue to haunt mark's family. >> robin, have you spoken to mark in prison? >> we speak to him twice a week and go and visit when we can. he just wants to come home. just imagine living every day in there knowg you didn't do it. >> reporter: but if mark carver didn't kill ira yarmalenko, who did? >> did she travel from charlotte by herself? was there someone else in that car? >> an inmate wrote a letter and said that he had killed ira yarmolenko. >> reporter: the hunt for other suspects, next.
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>> reporter: ever since the day 20 year-old ira yarmolenko's bright life was cut short, mark carver's answers have been the same. mark, did you kill ira? >> no. >> reporter: did you strangle that young woman? >> no. i didn't even see her. >> there's some saying about -- how a lie has a short life, but the truth lives on forever. he's never wavered. >> reporter: what does that tell you? >> it tells me he is telling the truth. >> reporter: and if mark carver is telling the truth, that means a killer is still on the loose. someone who can solve the puzzle of that crime scene on the catawba river. why, for example, were there
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three ligatures around ira's neck? >> it's definitely overkill. the hoodie string was probably enough to cut off the air supply in her neck. >> reporter: that alone would have killed her. >> i think that alone would have killed her. the other two to me almost seemed decorative. >> reporter: the blue ribbon, almost like a bow. perhaps it was a crime of passion. at one point, investigators entertained the theory that ira knew her killer. could it have been a fellow student who may have been stalking her or a customer from that coffee house where she worked who some said might have been obsessed with her? or someone who coerced ira to let them into her car that day? >> the question was presented to me, did she travel from charlotte by herself. was there someone else in that car? >> reporter: remember, investigators were never able to enhance these surveillance images enough to confirm if ira was alone or not. >> the footage was not of good enough quality where someone could tell whether there was a person -- another person in the car, either in the front seat, the back seat.
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>> reporter: even if ira was alone, there was no shortage of other suspects in the area who might have committed a crime of opportunity. >> there were a lot of construction workers. there's a lot of traffic. a lot of people traffic. ample opportunity for her to come in contact with someone that was totally unknown to her. >> reporter: last, but perhaps most bizarre, a confession that came early in the case. >> an inmate in the mecklenburg county jail. >> the case of a murdered unc charlotte student. >> -- wrote a letter to one of our local news anchors and said that he had killed ira yarmolenko. >> reporter: police talked to the self-proclaimed killer, even tested his dna, but determined his confession was just a strange way to meet a local celebrity. >> and they believe that he was infatuated with the news anchor and saw this as a way of getting a chance to talk with her. >> reporter: was there any sign that he -- chris mumma says the only way to resolve the questions surrounding mark carver's guilt is for the district attorney to
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release the dna evidence to be re-examined. the district attorney in this case has opposed you every step of the way. >> he has. he has. and i've asked to sit down with him. i've asked to meet. >> i asked her, why should i help you to get somebody off that i firmly believe is guilty? >> reporter: prosecutors in this case declined to talk to us on camera, but they have steadfastly defended the touch dna evidence. after all, even if carver's was inadvertently transferred to the car, his cousin neal cassada's was found there,oo. what are the odds of two dna transfers happening? >> there's another way to look at this. if we do believe in secondary transfer, we have to start thinking about secondary transfer of both. >> reporter: but carver is adamant his only crime is being a gullible fisherman in the wrong place at the wrong time. why do you think police were so focused on you?
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>> because they just wanted it -- wanted somebody to take the rap for it. and they didn't care who done it. >> i think they thought they were easy targets. >> reporter: because? >> they were uneducated. they wasn't highly sophisticated. they were real simple. >> reporter: poor, you know. >> yeah, pretty poor. >> reporter: as of tonight there is another powerful voice suggesting carver's case should get another look. someone that might surprise you. the trial judge, timothy kincaid. >> part of the district attorney's oath is to do justice. and if that's what justice requires, that's what you got to do. >> reporter: when we come back, what happened just yesterday that could set mark carver free. and what ira's family has to say ab
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>> reporter: it has been nearly six years since mark carver was convicted of ira yarmolenko's murder. his original defense attorney stands by his handling of the case but has been haunted by it ever since. >> this is the one trial in 20 years that i have lost sleep over. mark carver is innocent. i would love to get a second chance. >> reporter: a second chance for mark carver. that's what chris mumma hopes she can deliver. just yesterday, she filed a motion demanding mark carver receive a new trial. >> we will certainly be saying that we thought that he had ineffective assistance of counsel. that he should have had a forensic expert of his own testifying, that they should have put the videotape in. >> reporter: what are the chances that you're going to be successful? >> we've been around this block enough to know it's not good to bet on it. so, we're going to fight for him and we're going to hope that the district attorney will work with us.
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>> it's a long process, but i do believe the truth will come out and mark will be free from prison. >> reporter: ira's family believes the truth is already out, and it's time for everyone to accept it. are you absolutely convinced mark carver is your sister's killer? >> i am convinced that he was one of the killers. if there is evidence that shows that mark carver is not guilty, that evidence needs to be stronger than the evidence that was used to convict him. >> reporter: with mark put away, ira's family would like his story to go away. >> to us, it's just more trauma. >> reporter: forcing you to re-live the worst moments of your lives. >> yes. but at the same time this is part of the overall system of justice in this country. >> reporter: what would you say to ira's family? >> i'm sorry that it happened, and i know they're hurting over their kid. and i want them to know i'm innocent.
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>> reporter: and if you believe mark carver, it means the mystery of what really happened to ira yarmelanko on that clear may morning remains as murky as the catawba river. shortly after the murder, a cross was placed there in ira's honor. before we left, we found it in the brush. >> this is the cross. >> reporter: nothing else remains. >> two families, still in pain. for the carvers, hopes that the motion filed just yesterday will lead to a new trial. especially a fresh look at the dna evidence. >> our question,o you think mark was the killer? let us know, use #abc2020. i'm elizabeth vargas. >> and i'm david muir. from all of us at "20/20" and abc news, have a good evening and a great weekend. good night.
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